Korea is cool. Korea is sexy.
Japan is neither of these things.
Korea has its share of social repression and East-Asian conformity, but the observable national identity is nowhere near as autistic as that of Japan. There is noise, there is grime, but there is a sense that underneath it all hot blood flows. No one would ever mistake Korea for Sicily, but compared to Japan, the Koreans are a passionate people.
Turn on the TV in Japan, and you are going to find yourself in a world of soporific celebrity-panel talk shows, hyper-real melodramas, and cooking shows. Turn on the TV in Korea, and you are likely to find martial arts movies, cabarets, and MTV-quality (for better or worse) music videos.
Even the commercials are different. Commercialland in Japan (a redundancy?) is populated with sexless young mothers in aprons, salarymen in dark conservative suits, old couples sharing Japanese traditional culture with their grandchildren, and female models dressed and behaving as schoolgirls.
In Korea’s Commercialland (Kommercialland?), asses are wiggled, legs are licked, women are embraced and kissed passionately. Models cry, models yell, pop stars even manage to project a believable cockiness.
I was warned that Korea is Asia’s most Confucian country and that it had peristed into modern society. This is definatly true as well – we had to learn yet another set of table manners and had to swallow our indignation when an old woman yelled at us and physically pushed us out of her way as we stopped to take a picture on the street. Nevertheless, whatever your views on filial piety and strict hierarchies, the spiciness of Korea was a welcome change from the tepid monotony that can sap one’s spirit in Japan.